#17. Sufjan Stevens – The Age of Adz
I’m still not quite sure what to make of this record, to be honest. If you read my review of the All Delighted People EP Stevens’ released this year prior to The Age Of Adz, I kind of noted the progression from “Old Sufjan” to “New Sufjan” as it exists almost self-contained in that EP. And so, stylistically, I mean, it’s basically a elementary game of contrast and compare – “That had banjo, this has synths” – nothing really insightful there. But as a piece of music, and pardon the pretention, but honestly, a “work of art”… How good is it? What is it saying?
To carry the art metaphor along just a bit… It’s as if a well-known portrait photographer had built a career on traveling throughout the country, capturing real people in real places – documenting their lives and stories in a frozen moment of time: The widow, the girl with cancer, the convicted serial killer – their faces were stark with detail, as were the scenic vistas behind them.
Then, unexpectedly, that same photographer announces a gallery showing in Brooklyn, and when the show opens, the pieces that hang on the wall bear little resemblance to past work. Gritty, pixelated self-portraits are obscured by smears of neon paint. Blurting, truncated poems are scrawled over pasted newspaper clippings. The faces of venerated rap producers are glued onto the cut-out bodies of Disney characters. A Ziggy Stardust lightning bolt protrudes from a cotton ball cloud. A marionette hanging from guitar strings dances on a river of ones and zeroes spewed from a volcano. Flickering fiber optics are braided around a rusty, welded frame.
Perhaps a genius of impression has become a genius of expression? There’s no questioning Steven’s lyrical adroitness here, as its his most confessional and reflexive to date. The album is ripe with references to his debilitating viral infection, his uncertainty with the album form, and his uneasy relationship with the critical masses, all voiced in elegantly dense verse. The concave focus of the album is amplified by the instrumental whirlwind spinning in and out of every song, bouncing off of the sonic walls and back through the thematic headspace. Drum samples pulse, skip and scatter, while a bevy of synths sputter and spin, belching and squelching inward from the periphery – the overall effect dizzying and disorienting. To add to the thematic musical house of mirrors, many of the tracks start to feel like Sufjan remixing Sufjan remixing Sufjan remixing Sufjan remixing…
Stevens is still skilled with the melodic brush, but here he embellishes his previously understated turns by worming clusters of notes into single syllables. The orchestral bedrock of his previous releases finds a more complimentary role in this space, serving more as elastic decor, pulled into frame and stretched to fit the scope of the moment. The end result could feasibly fall in the space between Owen Pallet and The Dirty Projectors (Bitte Orca, specifically), but still entirely a Sufjan production.
The Age of Adz is an incredibly dense album, to be sure. Bringing back that handy contrast-and-compare,Come On Feel The Illinoise spread it’s 101-minute wingspan over twenty-two tracks – Adz clocks the same runtime over only eleven songs. Beyond the sprawling song-lengths, the album itself is a messy, bewildering, and at times, fatiguing blur, revealing itself more concretely with each listen. Often these types of albums are given up on, as listeners rarely have the patience to revisit such a “chore” of an album, but the magic of Adz is Stevens’ innate ability to inject just enough of his songwriting brilliance amidst the sonic meltdown to entice the audience to take another trip down the rabbit hole into his insecure and cathartic wonderland.